Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Red Sox Ability to Repeat Will be Driven by Pitching

Jake Peavy, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz will be critical to the Red Sox success this year.

It's been said time after time: Pitching wins championships. That old adage certainly applied to the 2013 Boston Red Sox. How the Sox fare this season will once again rely on their starting pitching, as well as their bullpen.

The Red Sox' 2014 rotation will be comprised by mainstays Jon Lester, John Lackey, Felix Doubront, Jake Peavy (who joined the club last July 31) and Clay Buchholz.

Some of the above group carried a heavy workload en route to winning the World Series last season. The Sox played an extra month of baseball in 2013, which ultimately shortened their offseason by a month. That may have some carry over into 2014.

However, the 2013 post-season aside, this particular Red Sox rotation isn't a bunch of innings eaters.

Left-hander Jon Lester threw a career-high 213.1 innings last regular season, then added 34.2 more in the postseason. Lester was the only member of the staff to reach the 200-innings threshold.

Right-hander John Lackey worked 189.1 innings (215.1 including the postseason), his highest cumulative total since 2007.

The always fragile Clay Buchholz threw just 108.1 innings last season, and has never thrown more than 189.1 in any of his seven seasons in the majors. That's troubling.

Jake Peavy threw a combined 144.2 innings last year between Chicago and Boston, and the righty has pitched 200 innings only once since ‘07.

Meanwhile, left-hander Felix Doubront (26) is the only starter under age 29, and he threw a career high 162.1 innings last season.

The Sox will need this group to pitch a lot more innings than that this season in order to be a playoff team.

Here are the vital stats of the Red Sox starters in 2013:

Lester: 15-8, 33 starts, 3.75 ERA, 67 BB, 177 Ks, .253 OBA, 1.29 WHIP
Buchholz: 12-1, 16 starts, 1.74 ERA, 36 BB, 96 Ks, .199 OBA, 1.02 WHIP
Doubront: 11-6, 27 starts, 4.32 ERA, 71 BB, 139 Ks, .261 OBA, 1.43 WHIP
Lackey: 10-13, 29 starts, 3.52 ERA, 40 BB, 161 Ks, .247 OBA, 1.15 WHIP
Dempster: 8-9, 29 starts, 4.57 ERA, 79 BB, 157 Ks, .256 OBA, 1.45 WHIP
Peavy: 4-1, 10 starts, 4.04 ERA, 19 BB, 45 Ks, .230 OBA, 1.16 WHIP

The Red Sox had five other pitchers make at least one start, and as many as seven starts.

With that rotation, which doesn't look especially impressive on paper, the Sox won the AL East and the World Series.

While some of the above numbers may seem a bit pedestrian, what the Sox' rotation had in spades last season (notwithstanding Clay Buchholz) was good health. For the Sox to have anywhere near the same level of success this year will require more of the same.

Lester has proven to be a workhorse throughout his career, having thrown at least 200 innings in five of the last six seasons. Given his history, there's every reason to expect that he'll do it again this year.

If Lackey can repeat his performance from last year, which was customary for him when he was with the Angels, he will be a formidable presence in the Sox rotation once again. Being that his elbow woes are now well behind him, that's also a reasonable expectation.

Given his age, Doubront appears poised for a breakout season. The left-hander has the raw stuff; he just needs to harness and control it, consistently throw strikes and not issue so many walks. If he trusts himself, and the defense behind him, Doubront could establish himself as one of the best young lefties in the game this year.

For his part, Peavy, a former Cy Young winner, says he is feeling healthier and stronger than at any time since his days with the Padres. Considering that San Diego was where Peavy won his Cy Young award and had his greatest individual success, that's encouraging.

Buchholz is the big question mark. Though he may be the best pure pitcher on the Sox staff, he's never proven that he can stay healthy and consistently make his scheduled starts. It's quite telling that since Buchholz made his big league debut in 2007, he has never made as many as 30 starts in a season. That needs to change this year.

The Red Sox are going with the customary seven-man bullpen, and will start the season with the following relievers:

Koji Uehara
Edward Mujica
Junichi Tazawa
Burke Badenhop
Brandon Workman

Andrew Miller
Chris Capuano

This group looks better, on paper at least, than the 2013 pen. To begin with, both Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, who each endured elbow surgeries last year, are now gone. Given their limited contributions last year, their absence this season is an immediate upgrade. Malcontent Alfredo Aceves is also gone. It all amounts to addition by subtraction.

The Sox also used relievers such as Pedro Beato and Matt Thornton last year. Both were ineffective, and both are now gone.

In place of those relievers, the Sox brought in former St. Louis closer Edward Mujica, who saved 37 games for the Cardinals last season, plus Burke Badenhop, who posted a 1.19 WHIP over 62.1 innings for Milwaukee last year.

Despite being a starter throughout his nine-year career, Chris Capuano also joins the Sox pen this year. The Massachusetts native gives the Sox additional starting depth right out of their own bullpen.

Lefty Craig Breslow has started the season on the 15-day DL, and should join the Sox a mid-month. So, the team's pitching depth has already come into play. Brandon Workman, who went 6-3 with a 4.97 ERA last season, takes Breslow's spot for now.

The Sox view Workman as a starter. But he was so effective last season that they are glad to have him on their roster, even if it's in a bullpen role for the time being. Most impressively, Workman fanned 47 batters in 41.2 innings last season, while surrendering just 15 walks.

The Sox also have some excellent minor league-depth options that include the following:

Rich Hill (L)
Drake Britton (L)
Alex Wilson (R)
Rubby De La Rosa (R)
Dalier Hinojosa (R)

The Sox also have additional starting depth in the minors, including righties Allen Webster, Anthony Ranuado, and Steven Wright. Webster and Ranuado are expected to assume rotation spots in the next couple of years, perhaps as soon as next year.

In sum, due to their veteran presence and bounty of youthful talent, the Red Sox appear poised to make another run at the Fall Classic. Naturally, repeating is difficult; no team has done it since the 1998-2000 Yankees.

However, if the Sox can stay healthy, they have enough quality pitching to give it another run in 2014.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Red Sox Roster Coming Into Focus

There are roughly two weeks remaining in spring training, and the Red Sox began making initial roster cuts today. There were no surprises; 12 minor league players were reassigned to minor league camps.

At this point, the Sox' roster appears mostly fixed, with few questions. The primary one is, of course, who the everyday center fielder will be: Jackie Bradley Jr. or Grady Sizemore. More on that in a moment.

The Red Sox will carry the customary 12 pitchers; five starters and seven relievers. The rotation, notwithstanding the retirement of Ryan Dempster, will have no surprises at the outset.

Manager John Farrell has already indicated the order of the starting rotation as Jon Lester, John Lackey, Felix Doubront, Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz.

If that order seems odd, it's a testament to the great spring that Doubront is having, as well as a clear desire to diminish the workload and expectations of Buchholz. It will also give the Sox, and Buchholz, a strong advantage over other team's fifth starters.

However, putting Buchholz in the fifth spot may only be a temporary arrangement, perfect for the first month of the season, or so. The rotation is always subject to change given injuries, days off, rainouts, and how a certain pitcher matches up with another team's pitcher at any given time. For example, a team's No. 1 or No. 5 pitcher doesn't always lineup against the other team's equivalent.

The bullpen, though mostly set, is not yet fully formed. There is still at least one spot in play.

The Sox will likely go with Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Burke Badenhop, Edward Mujica, and lefties Andrew Miller and Chris Capuano, Given that lefty Craig Breslow just threw his first spring bullpen this week, and seems to be having some sort of shoulder issue, it appears likely that he will begin the season on the disabled list.

That leaves one open bullpen spot, with plenty of competition.

Farrell has been impressed with Drake Britton so far in camp, and it appears that the lefty is in the running for a bullpen role. But Brandon Workman proved himself at the big league level last year and even pitched in the World Series. It's tough to argue that he's not worthy of a roster spot.

However, both Britton and Workman have options remaining, so there is no danger of losing either player if they are assigned to Pawtucket to start the season.

Beyond that pair, the Sox will have a ton of depth options at the Triple-A level: Alex Wilson (R), Joe Mijares (R), Rich Hill (L), Francisco Cordero (R), Dalier Hinojosa (R), and Rubby De La Rosa (R) will all be waiting for a call.

The Red Sox infield is pretty well settled at this point. A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross will split time behind the plate, with the former expected to catch approximately 100 games. The Sox will have Mike Napoli at first, Dustin Pedroia at second, Will Middlebrooks at third and Xander Bogaerts at shortstop. Newly acquired Jonathan Herrera is projected as the utility infielder.

David Ortiz, of course, will be the designated hitter and bat third.

That's seven infielders, plus the DH. Add in the 12 pitchers and we're up to 20 roster spots, leaving five remaining.

The outfield is where it gets a bit more complicated. There are six players currently vying for five spots.

Gold Glove winner Shane Victorino will patrol right field once again, and that's about the only certainty. However, it seems likely that the combination of Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes will again form a left field platoon.

Center field is where the action is. Bradley Jr. was the heir apparent after Jacoby Ellsbury departed for New York. But Sizemore has surprised everyone in spring training. He's shown speed, agility and even good timing at the plate, which is particularly amazing for a guy who missed the last two seasons. The question is how often, and how many games, Sizemore will be able to play this year.

The above group amounts to five players for five outfield spots. But that doesn't account for Mike Carp, who posted a .296/.362/.523/.885 slash line last season, along with nine homers and 43 RBI in 216 at-bats.

Despite his versatility in playing left and first, Carp is battling for a roster spot and could be the odd man out. He has no minor league options remaining, which is why Seattle traded him to Boston at this time last year.

According to multiple reports, scouts from the Pirates and Brewers have been at Red Sox camp keeping an eye on Carp, who leads the Sox with three homers (tied with Bryce Brentz) in 21 at-bats this spring.

Barring an injury, something has got to give: someone from that group of six outfielders has to go. While Carp may seem like the most likely candidate for a trade, the Red Sox really like his defensive versatility and his ability to come off the bench and deliver key pinch hits.

There is a rather simple solution.

Don't be surprised if Bradley starts the season back in Triple-A. The young outfielder has been struggling this spring, posting a .208/.296/.333 line, with just five hits (one for extra bases) in 24 at-bats, and more strikeouts (six) than walks (three).

Additionally, Bradley still has options remaining and assigning him to Pawtucket would allow the Sox to keep Carp on the roster and use Bradley as a depth option down the line this season.

After all, the Grady Sizemore experiment / feel good story is just one play away from ending badly.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Stephen Drew is Still a Free Agent, and No One Should Feel Bad For HIm

Stephen Drew, who last fall rejected the Red Sox qualifying offer — a one-year contract of $14.1 million — remains jobless even as spring training rolls on. Drew is still said to be looking for $14 million per season, the same amount that he previously declined.

But here's the reality, Mr. Drew: When you roll the dice, sometimes you lose.

Being attached to draft pick compensation has undoubtedly had an impact on Drew's market.

But Drew's offensive performance the last three seasons has likely played a role as well.

Here's Drew's slash line for each of the last three seasons:

2011: .252/.317/.396
2012: .250/.326/.382
2013: .253/.333/.443

Weak hitting. Weak on-base. Weak slugging. In my world, that's not a $14 million-per-year player.

Yet, Drew doesn't think the above statistics have anything to do with the lack of interest in him this offseason. Nor does he seem to recognize that perhaps he's simply asking for too much money given his three-year track record.

It's been reported that the Red Sox have offered Drew a two-year contract for an undisclosed sum, and the Mets have reportedly discussed a salary of around $9.5 million for Drew, which is what he earned last year with the Sox.

But that's just not enough for Drew, who seems to place a higher value on himself than anyone else. In Drew's estimation, he's not the problem. The problem, in his view, is the draft pick compensation system.

Here's what Drew told CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman on Friday:

“You hate to say it, but it really messes up free agency for guys who worked hard. A lot of people don’t want to give up that first-round pick, and that’s what it boils down to. It’s unusual. I understand draft picks, but at the same time, you have a guy who’s proven as very good on defense and a top five shortstop if you look at it.”

“Our union has been really good. But I think we really have to look at this. Is this really good for free agency? Our players need to sit back and look at it and see what we need to do about it.”

Boo hoo. Life is tough. Again, Drew was offered a guaranteed salary of $14.1 million by the Red Sox for this season, and he turned it down because it wasn't enough. He thought he could get more on the open market. Other players did the same (such as Jacoby Ellsbury, for example), and some of them got paid.

But not everyone. Nelson Cruz turned down the $14.1 million qualifying offer made by the Rangers and last week ended up settling for $8 million from Baltimore. He rolled the dice and he lost. That's the name of the game when you gamble. Bets don't always go your way.

That's the bitter reality Stephen Drew hasn't come to grips with yet. But eventually he may have to. He has no leverage at this point, and the baseball clock is ticking.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Ryan Lavarnway Fighting To Keep His Baseball Career Alive in 2014

The 2014 season will be a critical one for Red Sox catcher Ryan Lavarnway. The 26-year old is down to his last option and is a long shot to make the 25-man roster out of spring training.

An option allows a team to send a player back and forth from the minors to majors during a season. Every player has three option years.

In essence, a team can send a player down to the minors for just three seasons. After that, the player must stick on the 25-man roster, or his team risks losing him. After a player has made trips back to the minors in three different seasons, he must first be passed through waivers (where he can be claimed by another team) before again being reassigned to the minors.

That means Lavarnway has to show the Sox enough this season to stick with the big league club, or else 2014 will likely be his last with the organization.

The problem for Lavarnway is that he is currently blocked by two veteran catchers, A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross, at the big league level.

Beyond that, Lavarnway also sits behind minor league catchers Christian Vazquez (age 23) and Blake Swihart (age 21) on the depth chart. The Sox see the latter two as their catchers of the future.

Lavarnway was once viewed as a solid prospect with lots of power potential. After all, he stands 6'4" and weighs 240 pounds. With that kind of size, Lavarnway certainly profiles as a power hitter. And for a few years, he proved it in the minors.

In 2009, at Single-A Greenville, Lavarnway belted 21 homers along with 36 doubles, 87 RBI and a .540 slugging percentage. He followed that in 2010 by hitting a combined 22 homers and 27 doubles, to go along with 70 RBI and a .489 slugging, between Greenville and Double-A Portland.

The next season, 2011, was split between Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket. Lavarnway took a big step forward, smashing a combined 32 homers, along with 23 doubles, 93 RBI and a fantastic .563 slugging percentage.

Lavarnway appeared to be on his way to a productive big league career, and seemed poised to supplant Jason Varitek as the Red Sox' primary catcher.

But, beginning in 2012, Lavarnway took giant steps backward. His development didn't merely stop, but seemed to regress.

That season, the catcher had just 8 homers and a .439 slugging through 319 at-bats at Pawtucket.

Last year, Lavarnway performed even worse at Pawtucket, hitting .250/.346/.350 in 214 plate appearances. While the .346 OBP is respectable, his .350 slugging percentage was horrid. After all, there are guys who bat .350 each year. It is a clear sign that Lavarnway's power has simply vanished.

Lavarnway had stints with the Red Sox in each of the last three seasons, getting 43, 166 and 82 plate appearances, respectively. Though it's a relatively small sample size (totaling just 291 plate appearances), Lavarnway has shown little power, or anything else. In that span, the catcher has hit just 5 homers and posted a .208/.258/.327 line.

The last two seasons have lowered Lavarnway's stock and diminished the organization's once great hope for him. In fact, it has served to drop Lavarnway down the organizational depth chart and put him on the bubble.

The upcoming season could be a make or break one for Lavarnway. It's time to perform and show some value, or potentially face being released.

That's why GM Ben Cherington has confirmed that Lavarnway will get some time at first base this spring, and may also play some first base at Pawtucket this season.

The idea seems to have been embraced by Lavarnway, who says, "Any way I can find to make myself more valuable to the team as a player, I look at as a positive.”

It's not just that Lavarnway will be fighting for a job with the Red Sox this season, or even a spot in the minors. He'll be fighting to keep his baseball career alive at any level, with any club.

Baseball is all about seizing the moment and proving your value, and Lavarnway knows this.

“At the end of the day, how you play dictates everything in the game,” Lavarnway said. “Every opportunity that you earn, or that's afforded you, is a direct reflection of how the way that you've played. I need to continue to improve every day."

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Jason Bay is a Cautionary Free Agent Tale, and the Red Sox Made the Right Choice

The former Red Sox left fielder is the classic cautionary tale about high-priced free agents

Jason Bay came to the Red Sox from Pittsburgh in 2008 in the same deal that sent Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers.

Bay was an instant success in Boston, posting a .293/.370/.527 slash line, while belting nine homers and driving in 37 runs in just 211 plate appearances. Those numbers projected to something in the range of 30 homers and 100 RBI over the course of a full season.

The next year, Bay lived up to those projections by having a career year, in which he belted 36 homers with 119 RBI and a .921 OPS. That season, 2009, Bay was named #41 on the Sporting News' list of the 50 greatest current players in baseball.

After six seasons, in which he had averaged 30 home runs and 99 RBI, Bay was a bona fide star. And he was going to be paid handsomely as a result.

By having a career year, Bay had positioned himself nicely going into free agency. But negotiations between Bay and the Red Sox didn't go smoothly. First, the outfielder rejected the Sox offer of salary arbitration. The team then offered a contract that included language protecting them in the event that Bay's knees became problematic (a physical obviously showed something that gave the club some concern). But Bay balked at the offer.

Instead, on December 29, 2009, Bay agreed to a four-year, $66 million contract with the New York Mets, which also included a vesting option for a fifth year.

However, that contract quickly became an albatross for the Mets.

Over three seasons in New York (the team and the player eventually agreed to an early contract termination), Bay hit a grand total of 26 home runs (10 less than his 2009 season with the Red Sox) and drove in 124 runs. That amounted to an average of just nine home runs and 41 RBI per season.

Making matters worse, Bay batted just .223 over those three seasons, marred by a lowly .165 average in 2012.

The former star outfielder was an unmitigated bust in New York. Neither the player or the team was happy, but the player still got paid handsomely.

Bay then signed a one-year free agent contract with the Seattle Mariners before the 2013 season. The arrangement allowed him to play for the club nearest his home in British Columbia, making it a home coming of sorts.

Yet, once again, Bay faltered, posting a .204/.298/.393 line, with 11 homers and 20 RBI. He was designated for assignment on July 29, and was eventually released on August 6.

The career of the 2004 NL Rookie of the Year and three-time All Star had gone off a cliff. It was no aberration. For four seasons, Bay spiraled downward, looking like a shadow of his former self. And it wasn't because he got old. Bay's career was derailed by age 31, largely due to injuries.

As a member of the Mets, the outfielder suffered a concussion in 2010 and was limited to just 95 games. However, Bay was snakebitten once again in 2011 and started the season on the disabled list due to a rib injury that limited him to 123 games. But the worst was yet to come.

Early in the 2012 season, Bay broke his ribs making a diving catch and again wound up on the DL. Yet, that wasn't the end of his woes. Bay soon suffered another concussion that put him back on the DL. The combination of injuries limited him to just 70 games that season.

Interestingly, Bay's knees, which so concerned the Red Sox, were never a problem.

In the four years since he left Boston, Bay topped out at 123 games and averaged just 89 games per season.

Now comes word that Bay is headed to Japan in order to continue his baseball career. How the mighty have fallen. Bay has taken a long, slow ride into oblivion.

Bay is the cautionary tale about free agents. His may be an extraordinary case, but it is not isolated. Players are signed based on past performance. Unfortunately, that is not a very good indicator of future performance. Long term contracts (and Bay's deal with the Mets was just four years) leave teams with little flexibility, yet create great financial obligations.

History shows that the Red Sox made a wise decision by not falling in love with Bay and entering into a bidding war for his services. The Sox reportedly offered Bay a four-year, $60 million contract, yet he was seeking more. The Mets offered an additional $6 million, and that got it done.

However, the Mets' success in those negotiations ultimately turned out to be their downfall, and the Sox have been thanking their lucky stars ever since. It's fair to say the Sox dodged a bullet. But it was also an example of restraint.

The Sox placed a value on the player and refused to exceed that cost. They accepted the possibility that they might be outbid, and eventually they were. Goodbye and good luck, Jason.

As history shows, it was a wise choice.

The Red Sox received the 39th (Anthony Ranaudo) and 57th (Brandon Workman) selections in the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft as compensation. Workman pitched in the 2013 World Series for the Sox and will be on their Opening Day roster in 2014. Ranuado also has a chance of pitching for the club in 2014.

The Red Sox benefitted in more ways than one from their decision to let Bay walk. They saved money, gained financial flexibility and got two young players that may impact their roster for years to come.

In other words, though the Mets are finally free of Bay's contract, the Red Sox restraint in 2009 continues to pay dividends in Boston.

It's difficult to predict the future, and hindsight is always 20/20. Long-term, free-agent contracts are a gamble. The Red Sox have always been grateful that the Mets outbid them for Bay.

Meanwhile, the Mets spent four years regretting their pursuit of the outfielder (they still owed him $21 million when they parted ways after just three seasons).

That's food for thought in the aftermath of Jacoby Ellsbury's signing with the rival Yankees. While Bay was signed for four years at $66 million, beginning with his age 31 season, Ellsbury is signed for seven years at $153 million, beginning with his age 30 season.

That's why it will hardly be surprising if at some point in the next few years, the Red Sox are again feeling grateful that they were outbid (and thereby saved) by another New York team.

With a little perspective, restraint is often viewed as a virtue.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Breaking Down Free Agent Jacoby Ellsbury

Last week, the Mets signed outfielder Chris Young to a one-year, $7.2 million contract, pending a physical.

In 2013, Young hit .200/.280/.379 with 12 homers and 10 steals. That feeble performance somehow warranted a $7.2 million pay day for next season.

That begs the question, how much is Jacoby Ellsbury worth?

Ellsbury plays terrific defense. With his superior speed, the center fielder gets to balls that others can't.

Yet, while Ellsbury is capable of making highlight-reel plays, his weak arm is a limitation. Have you ever seen him throw out anyone at home plate? Me neither.

In 2013, Ellsbury put together a slash line of .298/.355/.426/.781, with 9 homers, 31 doubles, 53 RBI and 52 stolen bases, which led the majors.

Let's breakdown those numbers a bit:

The .298 average is nice and it was right in line with Ellsbury's .297 career mark. The other thing that stands out is the 52 steals; 2013 marked the third time in his seven seasons that Ellsbury eclipsed the 50-steal mark. The man is undoubtedly an elite base stealer.

However, the .350 on-base percentage, while a decent clip, is not elite. Some great hitters bat .350. Moreover, a .350 OBP for a leadoff hitter, in particular, is nothing special.

Another thing that jumps out is that Ellsbury, a guy with terrific speed, had just 31 doubles in 2013. For comparison, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a big, lumbering guy, had 40 doubles last season. How is that possible?

Yet, this year was no fluke. Ellsbury has surpassed the 30-doubles mark in just one other season; his freak year of 2011, when he had 46.

Ultimately, the job of a leadoff hitter is to first get on base and then score. As noted, last season Ellsbury posted a .355 OBP, roughly in line with his .350 career average. That put Ellsbury 38th in the majors and 19th in the American League. Either way, that's not elite.

When it comes to scoring runs, Ellsbury is good, but not great. In fact, Ellsbury has scored at least 100 runs in just one of his seven seasons. In 2013, Ellsbury scored 92 runs despite stealing 52 bases. How did that happen?

Considering that the Red Sox were first in the majors in runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, you have to wonder how Ellsbury failed to score at least 100 runs last season.

Ellsbury's 92 runs were seventh in the AL in 2013, which is fine. But with his great speed, failing to score 100 runs — on a team that produces runs at such a prodigious rate — is hard to fathom.

Ellsbury had a freak season in 2011, which seems to be the basis of agent Scott Boras' argument that the center fielder is worthy of an elite contract. But 2011 was an outlier; it was not representative of Ellsbury's overall career.

In 660 at-bats in 2011, Ellsbury hit 32 homers. In the remaining 2,252 at-bats in his career, Ellsbury has hit 33 homers. In fact, Ellsbury has never even reached double digits in any other season.

One way or another, Ellsbury is about to become a very rich man. Given that baseball is awash in new TV contract money, it's easy to surmise that Ellsbury is on the verge of a windfall contract.

However, it will be particularly fascinating to see how many (if any) teams view him as a $20 million per year player.

As history shows, teams that sign players to long-term, high-dollar contracts are often left bitterly disappointed in the end (i.e Barry Zito, Ryan Howard, Carl Crawford, Vernon Wells, Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Johan Santana and Alex Rodriguez, for example).

Manny Ramirez was arguably the only player who continually earned his $20 million annual salary, inasmuch as a baseball player can truly earn that kind of money. Yet, it's anybody's guess how long Ramirez was using PEDs to achieve his gaudy stats.

The economics of the game are simply crazy right now; average players are getting the kind of money once reserved for superstars. Ellsbury is certainly well-above average, so he is going to get an enormous pact one way or another.

Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reports that Ellsbury is looking for deal in the range of the seven-year, $142 million contract that Carl Crawford signed with Boston three years ago. That deal is now widely viewed as a bust. Baseball execs may be wary of handing the same sort of deal to Ellsbury.

In fact, Red Sox owner John Henry recently expressed a reluctance to enter into long-term contracts.

"We had a long history of overpaying and going too long in contracts... You can make mistakes. You can sign someone to a five-year deal that should have been a four-year deal."

Henry indicated that the Sox would rather overpay players on short-term deals, as they did last offseason, rather than engage in long-term contracts.

"You can pay him a few million extra a year in order to put together the exact team that can contend," said Henry.

If you take the owner at his word, and Ellsbury sticks to his guns in pursuing a seven-year pact, the center fielder has already played his last game with the Red Sox.

As much as I love Ellsbury's skills and abilities, he is not a $20 million per year player. Yet, it only takes one irrational, irresponsible owner to make such an offer.

If the Red Sox lose the 30-year-old Elsbury to free agency, they will be losing a player who stole 52 bases in 2013 and 241 in his Red Sox career. Yet, while Ellsbury's greatest strength is his speed, that typically starts to fade during a player's mid-30s.

Over the course of a five year deal, a team may be able to maximize Ellsbury's value, provided that he remains healthy (which is not a certainty, given that he missed significant time in two of the last four seasons due to injury). But on a six or seven-year deal, which Ellsbury is allegedly seeking, things could get dicey.

That's why the Red Sox should remain steadfast and not get involved in a bidding war over a long term contract for Ellsbury.

In reality, he is probably worth five years, $75 million — or an average annual value of $15 million.

While an annual salary of that magnitude would not have ranked among the 20 highest in baseball last season, it's fair to argue that Ellsbury is not among the 20 best players in baseball right now.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Red Sox Culminate Remarkable 2013 Season With 8th World Series Championship

The Red Sox entered the 2013 season as a team with low expectations in the baseball world. Everyone it seemed, except for the Red Sox themselves, expected little from this club. After all, the Sox had finished 2012 with a 69-93 record, their worst since the 1965 team posted a woeful 62-100 record 48 years earlier.

Red Sox fans had gotten used to years of heartbreak and disappointment, but they weren't accustomed to such futility. For decades, the franchise had been highly competitive. But the 2012 Red Sox were just pathetic.

So, when the team arrived in Fort Meyers for spring training this year, most pundits and prognosticators expected little from them.

In fact, more than three dozen writers and broadcasters made preseason picks for ESPN.com’s Major League Baseball preview section last spring, and not one of them picked the Red Sox to win the American League East.

Not one writer on SI’s seven-person panel picked Boston to make the playoffs. Nobody at Hardball Talk had them in the postseason either. And three out of four on Yahoo! had the Sox in last place.

Yet, from the very beginning, the Red Sox players all seemed to believe in themselves and in each other. Somehow, none of them seemed to believe that the World Series was out of reach.

In my 2013 Red Sox preview, I wrote that in order for the Red Sox to succeed, nearly every player needed to more or less have a career year. And in the end, that's more or less what happened.

The 2013 Red Sox became one of the most amazing worst-to-first stories in Major League Baseball history. But that outcome was hard to predict back on Opening Day.

The Red Sox front office had a busy offseason, signing David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara and Mike Napoli to free agent deals. The Sox also traded for Joel Hanrahan and Mike Carp. But none of them was a bona fide star. None seemed to be capable of carrying a team, or at least helping to turn around such as woeful club.

Yet, the Sox started winning right out of the gate. They went 18-8 in April and 18-10 in May. Suddenly, everyone was paying attention. This team was for real. They followed that by going 17-9 in June, 21-5 in July, 16-12 in August, and concluded the regular season by going 16-9 in September.

The Red Sox were the model of consistency this season.

From Memorial Day onward, the Red Sox were out of first place in the AL East for just seven days, and they were never more than a half-game out. The team was remarkably consistent all season long. The Sox were the only team in the American League not to have a losing streak of longer than three games.

Boston had the best record in the American League this season and also led baseball in runs scored. But that was only part of the story.

The Sox were also quite resilient this year, posting a 44-22 record after a loss. They made a habit of bouncing back after coming up short. That's how they got here; they never gave up, and they never lost heart.

The Sox were a team of great character, and of great characters. Guys like Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Ryan Dempster brought great determination, energy, enthusiasm and humor to the ball club. From the beginning, they were a fun bunch and a funny bunch.

Critically, GM Ben Cherington and his staff deserve all the credit for assembling this playful and talented bunch. Cherington added an unselfish mix of players who were committed to the team concept and committed to winning.

But heart, hustle and character can only carry a team so far. Ultimately, a successful team has to get it done on the field. To that end, the Sox were first in the majors in runs (853), on-base percentage (.349) and slugging percentage (.446), while posting the second highest batting average (.277).

The Red Sox got enormous contributions from almost every guy in the lineup, and on any given night any one of them could be the difference-maker, providing a game-winning hit, pitch or play.

David Ortiz posted his seventh 30-homer, 100-RBI season and finished in the top 10 in the American League in virtually every offensive category. Ortiz led the Major Leagues with 27 intentional walks, eight more than any other player.

He also led the Red Sox in the Triple Crown categories — home runs (30), RBIs (103) and batting average (.309) — becoming the first to do so since Manny Ramirez in 2001.

Dustin Pedroia batted .301 with a .372 OBP. The second baseman had 42 doubles, scored 91 runs, drove in 84 runs and stole 17 bases. In the end, he also won his third Gold Glove.

Jacoby Ellsbury batted .298 with a .355 OBP, while scoring 92 runs and stealing 52 bases. Ellsbury, who also played excellent defense in center field, set himself up for a fantastic free agent contract in the process.

Shane Victorino batted .294 with a .351 OBP, cracked 15 homers, stole 21 bases, scored 82 runs and drove in 61 runs from the two-hole. On top of all that, his strong arm and stellar defense in right field earned him his fourth Gold Glove.

Yet, there were huge and invaluable contributions up and down the lineup, even from players of whom little was expected.

Daniel Nava came out of nowhere and finished in the top 10 in the American League in batting. Who projected that?

Jarrod Saltalamacchia set a new single-season club record for doubles by a catcher, with 40. Salty also batted .273 with 14 homers and 65 RBI.

Jonny Gomes led the majors with four pinch-hit homers this year. Gomes had a flair for the dramatic and for coming through in the clutch. Moreover, he proved to be a far better fielder than anyone gave him credit.

Mike Carp was similarly clutch. In just 216 at-bats, the first baseman/outfielder posted a .296/.362/.523 line, with 9 homers and 43 RBI. Carp's versatility was of great benefit to manager John Farrell. Carp could be a starting first baseman, and he just might be next season.

Speaking of Farrell, there is no overstating the manager's influence and steady hand. Farrell laid out clear expectations from the start in spring training. Every player was expected to be on time and play hard — or "play the game the right way," as is often said in baseball parlance.

Farrell was able to manage a bunch of disparate personalities and players from different cultures, many of whom spoke different languages. The skipper got them to check their egos and work together with a common purpose and goal: team first. Be the best you can be, set high expectations and play to win.

David Ross earned the confidence and respect of the pitching staff, and what a pitching staff it was.

Jon Lester bounced back, winning 15 games, posting a 3.75 ERA and 1.29 WHIP. Lester led all Red Sox starters in starts (33), innings (213.1) and strikeouts (177). The veteran lefty showed leadership and grit, setting an example for everyone else on the staff.

Clay Buchholz, despite the fact that he again proved to be so delicate, had quite a first half and seemed destined for a Cy Young Award. On June 8, Buchholz was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA. Then he hurt his neck/shoulder and missed the next three months, or exactly half the season. The righty finished the season with a fantastic 12-1 record and 1.74 ERA. However, he made just 16 starts and threw only 108.1 innings.

John Lackey redeemed himself by winning 10 games, despite league-low run support. The righty posted a 3.52 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, while striking out 161 batters. We also found out that Lackey had been pitching with an elbow held together by by threads in 2010 and 2011. The Angels knew this at the end of the 2009 season and chose not to re-sign him. The Red Sox were also aware of this and still gave Lackey a five-year deal. That wasn't his fault.

The big Texan showed heart and grit by pitching two seasons with a bum elbow, and he never used it as an excuse. Yet, he earned his bones in Boston this season, and especially in the post-season. Lackey finally stepped up and earned that big contract. How can you not feel good for that guy?

The Sox lost closer Joel Hanrahan to a season-ending injury early in the year, and then lost his replacement, Andrew Bailey, to yet another season-ending injury. Those losses could have been devastating.

However, Koji Uehara — an unheralded, under-the-radar free agent signing — jumped right into the role and dominated. Uehara proved that he had ice water in his veins. At one point, the Japanese righty retired 37 consecutive batters (four short of Bobby Jenks record for relievers, set in 2007) and posted a 30 2/3 innings scoreless streak, a remarkable stretch that lasted from July 9 to Sept. 18.

From the beginning, this Red Sox team was unpredictable, they were entertaining, and they were likable. They bonded quickly, and the fans quickly bonded to them as well. They were a bearded, motley-looking bunch, and Boston loved them for it.

In the end, the Red Sox had far more talent than most people gave them credit. They also had a ton of heart, desire and will, plus an unyielding belief in one another. The players showed great confidence not only in themselves, but also in each other. On any given night, the team had a new hero that would step up and win them a ball game.

The Sox had 36 come-from-behind wins and 22 final at-bat victories this season. Early on, it was clear this team had one key element that eventually made them World Series champions: Magic.

Hardly anyone alive had witnessed what unfolded at Fenway Park on October 30th. It had been 95 years since the last Red Sox team clinched a World Series championship at Fenway. That was in 1918 against the Cubs.

The Red Sox ultimately won their eighth World Series in 13 tries on Wednesday night. In the process, a legendary and historic franchise made even more history.

Only the Yankees (27), the Cardinals (11) and A's (9) have more World Series Championships than the eight won by the Red Sox.

The Sox are just the second team (1991 Twins) to win the World Series the year after a last place finish. Faith has been restored in, and by, the Red Sox.

What a season to remember. What a team.

And this was supposed to be a "bridge year." Remember that?

The future looks bright for the Boston Red Sox and their legion of fans.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Peavy/Iglesias Trade Should Benefit Red Sox Now and in Future

The Red Sox trade of Jose Iglesias that netted them Jake Peavy is controversial to many Sox fans. After all, Iglesias had been highly touted for his defensive prowess since the Red Sox signed the Cuban defector as an international free agent in September 2009.

Defensively, Iglesias didn't disappoint, turning out to be one of the finest shortstops anyone could remember seeing in Boston. At just 23 years of age, many Sox fans looked forward to watching him vacuum up balls and save runs for at least the next decade.

However, Iglesias has always had trouble at the plate. Yet, almost miraculously, Iglesias seemed to put all those troubles behind him this season, posting a .330 average and .375 on-base percentage over 66 games.

But after a stunning July performance that saw the young shortstop batting over .400, his average has been steadily falling. That was quite predictable. No one in their right mind thought that Iglesias had suddenly turned into Ted Williams.

Over 100 career games at the major league level, Iglesias is a .281 hitter with a .333 on-base percentage. But Iglesias struggled for years in the minor leagues, showing horrible plate discipline. He routinely swung at balls out of the strike zone and missed. Not only did he consistently post poor batting averages, he also showed an inability to draw walks, resulting in a weak on-base percentage that didn't warrant time in the majors.

In essence, all too often he was an automatic out.

Entering this season, Iglesias was ranked as the 10th best prospect in the Red Sox organization. If someone had asked you back in spring training if you would trade Iglesias for Jake Peavy, I'll bet you would have enthusiastically said yes.

Peavy is a three-time All-Star. He won the Cy Young Award and the pitching Triple Crown with San Diego in 2007. The righty had a 3.25 ERA from 2002-08, though it has since jumped to 4.00. But it's important to note that Peavy has been pitching in the hitter-friendly US Cellular Field since 2009, as a member of the White Sox.

Peavy was 36-29 with a 4.00 ERA in parts of five seasons with Chicago. And in 45 starts since the beginning of 2012, prior to coming to Boston, Peavy had won 19 games and had a 3.61 ERA.

While some contend that Peavy's best days are behind him, he was an All-Star as recently as last season, finishing with an 11-12 record and a 3.37 ERA, to go along with 8.0 strikeouts and 2.0 walks per nine innings.

In his first start with Boston on Saturday, Peavy didn't disappoint, throwing seven-plus innings of two-run ball, in which he allowed just four hits. He walked two and struck out seven, throwing an economical 99 pitches in the process.

The putative reason for the trade was because Clay Buchholz has not pitched since June 8th, nearly two months ago. And Buchholz may not return until the end of August. Dr. James Andrews, who examined Buchholz last month, told the pitcher that he should only expect to make 4-5 starts during the rest of the regular season.

But Buchholz will eventually be back, and he won't be burdened by fatigue at the end of the season. The 28-year-old has thrown just 84.1 innings this year and should have a fresh arm upon his return.

The bigger issue, the one that most surely necessitated this trade, is Jon Lester.

Since May 20, Lester has just five quality starts, and two of them came in a five-day stretch in late July. In other words, Lester has been pretty ineffective for long stretches this season.

From mid-May, 2009 to September 5, 2011 (a stretch of 83 consecutive starts), Lester had a 2.79 ERA and a winning percentage over .700. But it's been pretty much downhill since.

Lester went 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA in September 2011, the beginning of a worrisome downturn for the former star pitcher. In 2012, by far the worst season of Lester's career, he went 9-4 with a 4.82 ERA.

Add it all up and, since the start of the 2012 season, Lester is 19-20 with a 4.67 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP. That's not the stuff of a No. 1 pitcher. That's a No. 5 pitcher, at best.

Many Red Sox fans were hopeful that the return of John Farrell, the former pitching coach under whom Lester had his greatest success, would put the lefty's career back on track. And at the start of this season, that seemed to be the case.

Lester started the year looking like his vintage 2010 self. Over his first nine starts, the lefty went 6-0 with 2.72 ERA. But that was largely the result of a torrid April, when Lester went 4-0 with a 3.11 ERA.

Since that time, Lester has often looked unworthy of a spot in the rotation. He went 2-2 with a 3.92 ERA in May and 2-2 with a 7.62 ERA in June. That slide was alarming. However, Lester mostly righted the ship in July, going 2-2 with a 3.13 ERA.

Though he is only 29 and should be in the prime of his career, Lester has clearly regressed. He has thrown 1,306 innings for the Red Sox and perhaps that has taken its toll. Lester's fastball has lost velocity in each of the last three seasons. He can no longer just blow hitters away. Instead, he now needs to rely on guile, an element that far too often eludes him.

Lester dominated hitters from 2008 to 2010, averaging 16.7 wins, 207 innings and 201 strikeouts. That now seems like a long time ago. Since then, he seems to have gotten old really quickly.

The lefty has thrown the fourth-most pitches in the majors this season. Perhaps that's the reason for his ongoing struggles.

The Red Sox will be faced with a very interesting decision about Lester's future this offseason. The team holds a $13 million club option on Lester for 2014, with a $250,000 buyout.

He is not worth that kind of money right now, though the potential still remains. The reality is that the Sox aren't able to count on Lester or predict what kind of pitcher will take the mound on any given start; an excellent one, a good one, a mediocre one, or an awful one.

In his last 60 starts — the equivalent of two seasons — Lester is 19-23 with a 4.89 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP. He has averaged 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

In the 150 games prior, Lester was 76-31 with a 3.43 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP and 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

Picking up Lester's option would also give the Sox leverage to trade him, should there be any interested takers at that price.

Though the Red Sox drafted and developed Lester, at this point there has to be a lot of frustration and disappointment upstairs at Fenway Park.

That's why obtaining Peavy may ultimately prove to be such a sage move — this season and beyond. The veteran is signed for $14.5 million in 2014, meaning he is not merely a two-month rental. That was critical to the Red Sox in making this trade.

Peavy also has a $15 million player option in 2015 that would vest if he pitches 400 innings from 2013-14, including 190 in 2014. But because he had thrown only 80 innings this season at the time of the trade, that is unlikely.

With Peavy in the fold next year, the Sox could potentially deal Lester or Ryan Dempster this offseason (the Sox have one year of control remaining on both).

Additionally, the extra year of control over Peavy allows the Sox an opportunity to make a qualifying offer (one year at approximately $14 million-$15 million) to him after next season, which would garner them a draft pick in return. That would offset the loss of at least one of the three low-level prospects also traded to obtain Peavy.

Trades are usually difficult to assess in their immediate aftermath. It usually takes a bit of time to gain the necessary perspective and accurately judge a trade on its merits. Some trades end up being perceived as lopsided and regretful for one party (think Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen). Some work out well for both parties, addressing the needs of each. And others end up serving no one, as the players involved become injured or otherwise underperform.

If the Red Sox win the World Series, or even make it to the Series, then this trade will have been a good one and GM Ben Cherington will be praised. However, if the Sox get booted from the playoffs early, and if Iglesias goes on to be a star, we may look back on this trade with regret.

I'll miss Iglesias, no doubt. He'll make hundreds of great plays over the course of his career, which will likely be a long one. And he will surely rob Sox hitters many times in the years ahead. But his bat was always in question, and his offense was falling back to earth in his final month with Boston.

Iglesias was 5 of 43 over his last 12 games, with one run scored. His last extra-base hit was on July 4. And, of his 70 hits this season, 24 were in the infield. That .400 average was fun for a while, but he was playing way out of his head.

Peavy will likely mean more to the Sox fortunes this season than Iglesias. And the Red Sox still have a wealth of talented prospects in the minors that play on the left side of the infield. Of course there's third baseman Will Middlerooks and shortstop Xander Bogaerts. But that's not all.

The Sox also have other promising shortstops in their development pipeline: Deven Marrero, the 2012 first-rounder, is at High-A Salem and Tzu-Wei Lin — a 19-year-old who signed out of Taiwan last summer for $2.05 million — is at Single-A Lowell.

In other words, even without Iglesias, the Red Sox future still looks bright. And with Jake Peavy, the present looks a whole lot brighter as well.

Put it this way, if the playoffs were to start to tomorrow, who would you rather have in the Sox four-man rotation: Jake Peavy or Jon Lester?

Yeah, I'd take Peavy too.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Evaluating the Red Sox Mid-Way Through the 2013 Season

The Red Sox have now played 81 games and officially reached the mid-point of the 2013 season. The Sox find themselves at 48-33, atop the AL East and owners of the best record in the American League. Only the Cardinals and Pirates have fewer losses (30 each).

The Sox got off to a red hot start, posting a 18-8 record in April. They cooled to 15-15 in May, but are 15-11 so far in June.

The Boston offense leads the majors with 417 runs, 407 RBI and a .793 OPS. They're also second in hits (764); second in walks (305); tied for second in stolen bases (62); second in on-base percentage (.348); second in slugging (.445); and third in batting (.274).

Boston's starting pitchers are second in the majors with 440 strikeouts and are tied for second with 36 wins. They are second in the AL with 486.1 innings and second in opponent's batting average, at .246. Sox starters are also third in the AL with a 3.79 ERA.

If there is a weakness on this team, it is the closer's role. Joel Hanrahan was lost for the season due to an elbow injury and Andrew Bailey, a former All Star who was slated for the closer's role last season, failed to step up and seize his opportunity. Bailey blew one-third of his save chances (4 of 12) before being demoted to middle relief.

Thirty-eight-year-old Koji Uehara has been appointed as the new closer, and it's too soon to tell how that will fare. He certainly seems to have the right make-up for the job.

When it comes to defense, the Sox are solidly middle-of-the-pack in the AL with a .986 fielding percentage and 43 errors.

However, Dustin Pedroia is having a Gold Glove-caliber season at second, and the sure-handed Jose Iglesias has been installed as the team's starting third baseman (replacing the demoted Will Middlebrooks). Iglesias has seamlessly made the adjustment to his new position.

Stephen Drew has surprised many will his excellent defensive play and Shane Victorino covers lots of ground in right and also has an excellent arm. To top things off, both Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes have been far better in the field than anyone expected.

This team seemed to gel early on and does indeed have the great clubhouse chemistry that GM Ben Cherington was seeking during the offseason. The players have openly expressed their support for one another and have noted a great sense of team unity. As easy as it was to dismiss Cherington's quest for chemistry, it does seem to be working.

Let's go around the diamond and look at the offensive performance of each payer to this point. I'll also project the current numbers over a full season, simply by doubling some offensive numbers, which I'll put in parenthesis. Lastly, we'll look at Red Sox statistician Bill James' pre-season projections and see how those might stack up at year's end.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, catcher: .261/.326/.459/.785, 8 HR (16 HR), 30 RBI (60 RBI), 19 2B (38 2B)
Bill James' pre-season projection: 19 HR, .309/.454/.752

Salty's numbers are respectable for a catcher. As long as he remains healthy, it wouldn't be a surprise if he ends up with 20 homers and 40 doubles at season's end. Salty's continued health will be critical to the Red Sox fortunes considering David Ross' concussion problems and Ryan Lavarnway's inexperience.

Mike Napoli, first base: .264/.344/.447/.791, 9 HR (18 HR), 53 RBI (106 RBI), 21 2B (42 2B), 98 SO (third in baseball) (196 SO), 73 games (146 games)
Bill James' pre-season projection: .248/.350/.469, 29 HR, 75 RBI, 127 G

Napoli started the season red hot, posting 4 homers and 27 RBI in April. However, over the next two months, Napoli has managed just 5 homers and 26 RBI. That's like falling off a cliff. And he strikes out a ton. Napoli may whiff an astounding 200 times this season. Aren't you glad that three-year deal feel through?

Dustin Pedroia, second base: .318/.398/.434/.832, 5 HR (10 HR), 47 RBI (94 RBI), 21 2B (42 2B), 99 hits (198 hits), 43 BB (86 BB), 52 runs (104 runs), 80 games (160 games)
Bill James' pre-season projection: 296/.367/.459, 17 HR, 45 2B

To this point, Pedey has to be the Sox MVP. He plays stellar defense and makes stunning plays on a regular basis. Yes, his power has dropped, but expecting a guy who is 5' 6", 160 pounds to continually bash 17-20 homers may be a bit optimistic. That's not his game. Pedroia is doing everything else incredibly well and is having one of his best seasons in the majors.

Jose Iglesias, third base: .417/.466/.550/1.016, 1 HR, 9 RBI

James didn't make any projections for Iglesias. Why would he? The fact that Iglesias is the team's starting third baseman, having supplanted Will Middlebrooks (who was supposed to be a bona fide middle-of-the-order hitter) is nothing less than stunning. The kid's defense at third is every bit as good as at short.

And how is it that a guy who couldn't hit Triple-A pitching is batting over .400 in the bigs? No, that torrid pace won't continue (after all, he has 15 infield hits so far), but if Iglesias manages to hit even .300, that would be a shocking over-achievement. Iglesias looks like a keeper.

Stephen Drew, shortstop: .226/.308/.391/.699, 5 HR (10 HR), 29 RBI (58 RBI), 13 2B (26 RBI), 5 3B (10 3B)
Bill James pre-season projection: 11 HR, .325/.411/.736

Drew was once an offensive force with Arizona. Coming into this season, he ranked fourth among all Major League shortstops over the previous five seasons with a .441 slugging percentage and was fifth with a .770 OPS (min. 1,500 plate appearances).

Unfortunately, that firepower has vanished in Boston. It's not just that Drew isn't hitting; he's not getting on base much either. On the other hand, he has been really steady in the field and routinely makes excellent plays at short. Drew has just two errors this season, the same number as that defensive wizard, Iglesias.

Daniel Nava, outfield: 281/.372/.443/.815, 10 HR (20 HR), 49 RBI (98 RBI), 43 runs (86 runs)

Nava is another guy who Bill James didn't bother making projections for. Again, why would he? What Nava is doing is simply astonishing. I've detailed Nava's story previously, so I won't bother to do it again. But, let's just say that this guy has overcome all the odds, and every obstacle at every turn. No one, except perhaps Nava himself, expected him to perform at this level and to be among the Red Sox most productive players.

Jacoby Ellsbury, center field: .292/.356/.406/.762, 1 HR, 27 RBI (54 RBI), 19 2B (38 2B) 93 hits (186 hits), 32 SB (64 SB), 49 runs (98 runs)
Bill James pre-season projection: .294/.346/.436, 15 HR, 37 SB, 100 R

If you haven't been paying attention, Ellsbury has been red hot as of late. After batting just .254 in May, the center fielder is batting .356 in June. Yes, he has just one homer, but so what? He's a leadoff hitter. His job is to get on base and score, and he's doing that quite well. Additionally, he's frustrating opposing pitchers by continually putting himself in scoring position with his major league-leading 32 stolen bases.

Sure, Ellsbury's stellar 2011 season was an outlier. But he's playing great defense and looks like the guy we all fell in love with in 2008 and 2009, when he posted a cumulative .291 average and .346 OBP, while averaging 96 runs and 60 stolen bases. We'll take that guy any year.

Shane Victorino, right field: .297/.349/.401/.750, 3 HR (6 HR), 19 RBI (38 RBI), 9 2B (18 2B), 31 runs (62 runs)
Bill James pre-season projection: .269/.338/.418, 14 HR, 29 2B, 7 3B, 29 SB, 85 R

I'll admit it: Victorino doesn't look washed up and is performing better than I had anticipated. He's hitting for average, getting on base, playing great defense and has a far better arm than I had realized.

On the other hand, he's shown little power, is largely a singles hitter and has just nine stolen bases, which is a major letdown for a guy with that kind of speed. Victorino has stolen at least 30 bases in four of the last six years, including 39 last season. For a guy who is getting on base at a .349 clip, mostly by hitting singles, he's not putting himself in a position to score by stealing bases. That's why he has just 31 runs, which is not acceptable. He needs to do more in the second half. The most important thing is for Victorino to stay healthy; he has appeared in just 51 of the first 81 games this season.


Clay Buchholz is 9-0 with a stellar 1.71 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. He should be the starting pitcher in the All Star game, if he's healthy. And there's the rub. Once again, Buchholz has proven himself to be as delicate as a flower. If it's not one thing, it's another with this guy. He's never pitched 200 innings in his six-year career and that trend will continue. Buchholz topped out at 189.1 innings last season and he won't even pitch that many this year. The righty has thrown just 84.1 innings in 2013 and who knows what might ail him in the second half?

Jon Lester remains a frustrating mystery. Is he the guy who dominated hitters from 2008 to 2010, when he averaged 16.7 wins, 207 innings and 201 strikeouts, or the guy who has struggled so mightily since September 2011.

The lefty entered September 2011 with a 75-31 record and the highest winning percentage among qualified active pitchers (.708). However, Lester is just 18-21 (.462) since that time. And his 4.61 ERA is 65th among AL starters this season.

Lester is only 29 and should be in the prime of his career, yet he has regressed. Though he started the season strongly, going 4-0 with a 3.11 ERA in April, it's been mostly downhill since then. Lester went 2-2 with a 3.92 ERA in May and 2-2 with a 7.62 ERA in June. That slide is alarming.

Quite tellingly, Lester has the highest ERA among the Red Sox primary starters this season.

Felix Doubront is 4-3 with a 4.33 ERA. But he's fooling enough hitters to post 76 strikeouts in 79 innings. Doubront's biggest struggle continues to be his high pitch counts early in games, which leads to early exits and unwanted stress on the bullpen.

Doubront has gone as far as the seventh inning just once in his 13 starts this season. That needs to change soon. However, he did have a stellar eight-inning performance on June 18th (the longest of his career), in which he shutout the Rays on just three hits and no walks. It was, by far, the best performance of Doubront's brief career and it highlighted the reason the Red Sox still have so much hope for the 25-year-old's continued development.

Veteran Ryan Dempster has given the Sox lots of innings and fanned dozens of batters in the process. Though the righty is just 5-8 with a 4.15 ERA, he's thrown 95.1 innings and struck out 94 batters along the way.

Despite his record, Dempster always gives the Red Sox a chance to win and keeps them in games. The offense has given him a run support average of 5.19, which should be enough to win, given his 4.33 ERA. But somehow the wins just haven't materialized. Regardless, Dempster has been a consistently solid, middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Sox.

Lastly, there's John Lackey, who is having a remarkable comeback season. The righty's 2.99 ERA is 12th best among AL starters this season (min. 75 innings). Though Lackey is 5-5, he is getting the lowest run support of any Red Sox starter and, with an average of 4.15 runs per start, is just 64th in the AL.

Lackey has fanned 73 batters and given up just 77 hits in 78.1 innings this season. Not bad for a guy that most of the fan base was trying to run out of town.

The fact that the Red Sox have maintained their hold on first place in the ultra-competitive AL East speaks to the quality of this team. Four of the five clubs in the division are above .500 and the fifth, the Blue Jays, are at exactly .500.

To the contrary, only two teams in the AL Central and two in the AL West are over .500. Yes, the Red Sox are pretty good. They're beating the good teams, as well as the mediocre and bad ones.

The Sox are 26-15 at Fenway, 22-18 on the road and 21-14 against AL East teams. This new version of the Sox is for real.

What is most vital for the Sox in the second half is to stay healthy. Their playoff hopes are riding on the health of their staring lineup, their starting five and their bullpen.

Joel Hanrahan is out for the season. That was a big loss. But so far he is the only regular that is gone for the year. Resiliency and relatively good health are among the major reasons for this team's success to this point. David Ross and Shane Victorino have suffered through assorted injuries, yet only Ross is still out.

But, above all else, the health of Clay Buchholz will be the most important issue for this team going forward. Without their best pitcher, the complexion of the starting rotation changes dramatically.

As long as the Sox stay healthy, there is no reason not to expect them to continue their winning ways, right into the playoffs.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Daniel Nava is Shattering Expectations and Writing a Great Story Along the Way

Daniel Nava became a bit of a Boston folk hero on June 12, 2010 when he became only the fourth player in Major League Baseball history to hit a grand slam in his first major league at bat and just the second to do it on the first pitch.

But despite his auspicious start, and the historic blast, Nava was sent back to Triple-A just 10 days later.

He was recalled to Boston on August 2 to replace Mike Cameron (who had been placed on the DL), but was optioned just two days later to make room for Jacoby Ellsbury. Nave was recalled once more on August 17, after Ellsbury re-injured his ribs.

However, despite these repeated trips to the big leagues, Nava never played a game for the Red Sox the following year. He was designated for assignment and removed from the Red Sox 40-man roster on May 20, 2011.

After passing through waivers unclaimed (none of the other 29 major league teams wanted him), Nava was out-righted back to the Pawtucket Red Sox.

It was just another bump in road (one of many, really) over the course of Nava's baseball career. Through it all, he never lost hope or a belief in himself, saying, "Quitting’s just not much of an option for me."

Nava's steely resolve was forged by overcoming long odds and countless doubters at every step of the way.

When Nava graduated from high school in Mountain View, California, he was just 5' 5" and 150 pounds. He may have been the only person who didn't see that as a limitation.

He tried to make the Santa Clara University baseball team as a walk-on, but failed. So he became the team's equipment manager instead.

However, Nava had to leave Santa Clara after two years because he could no longer afford the tuition. So, he then enrolled at a junior college, the College of San Mateo, where he not only made the baseball team but became a Junior College All-American.

Given his performance, Santa Clara wanted Nava back and offered him a full scholarship.

Nava went on to hit .395 with a .494 on-base percentage in his lone season with Santa Clara. Both were tops in the West Coast Conference and earned him first-team All-WCC honors.

Yet, Nava went undrafted after college and eventually signed with the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League. However, he was cut after his tryout.

Undaunted, Nava made the team the following year (2007) and went on to hit 12 home runs for the Outlaws, with a .371 batting average and a 1.100 OPS. As a result, Nava was named the top independent league prospect by Baseball America that year.

The Red Sox' assistant director of pro scouting, Jared Porter, recommended that the Sox sign Nava from the Outlaws in 2007 and the Sox ultimately paid them just $1 for the rights to Nava.

The young outfielder worked his way through the Sox minor league system, posting excellent OPS numbers and strikeout-to-walk ratios at every step of the way.

After getting designated by the Sox in 2011 and then going unclaimed by any other team, it looked as if Nava's big league aspirations would be unfulfilled. To make matters worse, Nava wasn't even invited to major league training camp in 2012.

However, due to early-season injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury, Nava was soon called up by the Red Sox again. He had gone 188 at-bats since his debut grand slam, when on May 14, 2012 he smashed a two-run homer at Femway. Through it all, Nava's belief in himself had never waivered.

For a guy who faced physical limitations from the beginning, and who was deemed inadequate by so many, Nava's accomplishments this year are striking. And for him, they must be quite rewarding.

This season, Nava is batting .288/.393/.474/.867. Among Red Sox players, he is fourth in batting (third among regulars), fourth in on-base percentage (third among regulars), fourth in slugging (third among regulars), and fourth in OPS (second among regulars).

Nava is fourth on the team with seven homers (three players are tied with eight) and third with 33 RBI. With exactly one-third of the season played, Nava is on pace for 21 homers and 99 RBI.

Not bad for a guy who couldn't make the Santa Clara University baseball team, who went undrafted, who was cut by an Independent League team, who was DFA'd by the Red Sox and who went unclaimed on waivers by any other club.

Daniel Nava is easy to root for. He is the classic overachiever, a guy who succeeds against all odds. He is a lesson in perseverance and of belief in one's self.

If Nava's baseball career had ended after that June 12, 2010 grand slam, it would have made for a great story. At that point, he was a guy who had already beaten the odds and exceeded the estimations of countless baseball scouts and coaches.

But that wasn't enough for Nava. He had bigger dreams, greater aspirations and higher expectations. Who knows where he can go from here?

While anything more would merely seem like icing on the cake, Nava has already proven himself to be more than just a serviceable backup or fourth outfielder. He is a legitimate major league outfielder, starting for a contending team in the AL East.

And that is a really fantastic story. You just can't script this stuff.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Why the Red Sox May Regret Their 3-Year, $39 Million Commitment to Shane Victorino

It's only pre-season, so the numbers don't count. Whether they're good or bad, for a variety of reasons, pre-season stats are typically an inaccurate predictor of regular season results.

That said, counting all games this spring — Grapefruit League, WBC and Team USA exhibitions — Shane Victorino is 7 of 45 (.155).

There were numerous reports during the winter that Victorino's bat sped had slowed considerably, and his numbers have indeed been on a downward trend in recent years. The decline in Victorino's batting average is particularly troubling.

Victorino became an everyday player in 2006. From 2006 - 2009, he batted .288; but over the last three seasons he batted just .264. That downward spiral is worrisome.

Additionally, Victorino hit just .229 against right-handed pitching in 2012, compared to .323 vs. lefties. His struggles got so bad that he actually spent two games hitting right against right-handed pitching.

Victorino is certainly an accomplished player — a three-time Gold Glove winner, a two-time All-Star, and a one-time world champion. And his foot speed is still an asset; Victorino has stolen at least 30 bases in four of the last six years, including 39 last season. He is also considered an excellent fielder.

However, there is legitimate concern that his best days are now behind him. ESPN's Keith Law, noted Victorino's declining bat speed and suggested that he might be best suited as a fourth outfielder. Law ranked Victorino 29th among all free agents last winer, behind players such as Ichiro, Lance Berkman, Ryan Ludwick, and Kevin Youkilis.

The fact that Law ranked Victorino behind Youkilis is telling since Youkilis, like the new Sox right fielder, has also batted just .264 over the last three seasons. The Sox lost so much confidence in the fading Youkilis that they traded him last season. The club wanted no part of the free agent third baseman this winter, feeling that his skills had eroded considerably.

If you're not worried yet, consider this: Victorino's OPS last year was nearly 100 points lower than Mike Cameron's the season before his ill-fated union with the Red Sox. From a purely statistical standpoint, the Red Sox $39 million commitment to Victorino seems dubious.

At the time of Victorino's signing with the Red Sox, one American League GM said, Victorino “should have been in the $7 million-$11 million range. What they paid him is ridiculous.”

However, Victorino didn't cost the Red Sox a draft pick; he was ineligible for a one-year qualifying offer from the Dodgers because he was traded by the Phillies mid-year.

In fact, the Sox didn't sacrifice any draft picks singing free agents this offseason (or any significant prospects in trades), which will likely be of great benefit to them down the line.

To be sure, there does appear to be some upside to this signing. Victorino is a switch-hitter, so he gives the Sox some left-right balance in their lineup. He also has some pop in his bat, hitting 18 homers in 2010 and 17 in 2011. Over parts of nine seasons in the majors, Victorino has posted a career line of .275/.341/.430/.770.

The 32-year-old Victorino is also a talented defensive player who is capable of playing both right field and center at Fenway. That ability provides insurance in case Jacoby Ellsbury is injured again this season, or leaves as a free agent next offseason.

Yet, it's easy to make the argument that the Sox overpaid for Victorino. After all, the Giants retained center fielder Angel Pagan (a similar player) for four years, $40 million this winter.

The Red Sox didn't make a free agent offer beyond three years this winter. And now that Mike Napoli's deal has been reduced to one-year at $5 million, due to concerns about a degenerative hip condition, Victorino received the longest, richest contract of any free agent signed by the Red Sox this winter.

That's something the team may come to regret long before that contract expires.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Tragic Tale of Ryan Westmoreland

No, it's not quite the same as the Tony Conigliaro tragedy, but the case of Ryan Westmoreland is a very sad tale nonetheless.

"Tony C." became the youngest home run champion in American League history at age 22 and also reached 100 homers faster than any other player in American League history. Then, while still just 22, Conigliaro was hit in the face by a fastball that ruined his eyesight and derailed his brief but brilliant career.

Westmoreland, on the other hand, never even made it to the majors.

The talented Red Sox minor league outfielder, also just 22, announced his retirement from baseball today. With him goes an extraordinary level of hope, hype and promise. Unfortunately, a whole lot of tremendous potential will never be realized.

Westmoreland was selected in the fifth round of the 2008 draft out of Rhode Island’s Portsmouth High School and quickly established himself as the organization's top prospect.

The gifted, young outfielder wasn't just the Red Sox top prospect; Baseball America rated Westmoreland the 21st-best prospect in baseball prior to the 2010 season.

He possessed a unique combination of hitting ability, power, speed, defensive prowess and a strong throwing arm. Yes, Westmoreland was the rare "five-tool" player, destined to be a major league star.

However, Westmoreland's career was derailed by two brain surgeries, one in March 2010 and the next in July 2012.

Far from being able to resume baseball activities, the young man faced the challenge of relearning the most basic of tasks, such as how to walk again and how to tie his shoes. Westmoreland's motor skills and reflexes were devastated by the cavernous malformation that developed in his brain stem and threatened his life.

While the surgery to correct it saved his life, it didn't spare his baseball career.

Westmoreland's dreams of being a major league player were ruined. In the process, the Red Sox lost a player that may have been a cornerstone of their franchise for years to come.

But life is not about baseball. Life is about living. And Westmoreland is indeed alive and otherwise well. Many challenges lie ahead as he seeks to resume the ability to carryout everyday functions that most of us take for granted.

Westmoreland played just one season of minor league baseball. In 2009 with Single-A Lowell, he hit .296/.401/.484/.885 with seven home runs, 35 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in 60 games.

He showed flashes of brilliance that dazzled Red Sox scouts and had the organization eagerly anticipating his arrival to the big league club.

Sadly, that day never arrived and we now know with certainty that it never will. That is truly sad.

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing in any young person's life, aside from a premature death, is the inability to realize one's enormous potential.

Hopefully, Ryan Westmoreland will discover his potential in another aspect of his life. After all, Tony C. went on to become a sports anchor in San Francisco when his baseball career was prematurely ended.

With a little luck and perseverance, perhaps Westmoreland will experience equal success in his post-baseball career. He's certainly got a life ahead of him. After all, he's still just 22-years-old.

Friday, January 18, 2013

2013 Red Sox Season Preview

If great expectations can be a burden, perhaps low expectations will be a blessing.

In 2011, the Red Sox entered the season under the weight of some mighty expectations. Many baseball observers projected that the team would win 100 games and eventually the World Series. However, the Sox famously flamed out after enduring a 7-20 record in September.

As that 2011 Red Sox team proved, a general manager can build an apparent powerhouse during the offseason, but some teams only look good on paper and never live up to all the hype.

Yet, the 2013 Red Sox will enter this season with low expectations and no hype whatsoever. Though the Red Sox have recently added David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara, Joel Hanrahan and Mike Napoli, none of them is a true star. Though some are former All Stars, most are considered past their prime (Victorino, Dempster, Uehara) or were never stars at any point in their careers (Ross, Gomes).

Now that the Red Sox have finally gotten the Napoli situation resolved, the team has added eight free agents this offseason, which is as many as they’ve acquired in the John Henry era. The Sox also added eight after the 2004 season. By any measure, the Sox have had a very busy offseason.

Yet, despite all of those additions, it may not be enough to make Boston a playoff contender once again. That's troubling since this is a team that hasn't made the postseason since 2009 and hasn't won a playoff game since 2008.

The most glaring thing about most of the Red Sox offseason acquisitions is their advanced age, which increases the risk of injury. Uehara (38 next season), David Ortiz (37), Ross (36 next season), Dempster (36 next season), Victorino (32) and Napoli (31) are all on the wrong side of 30, as far as baseball is concerned.

This is worrisome because last season, as in 2010, the Red Sox were decimated by injuries. The Sox are assuming the same risks in 2013 by loading up on veteran players in their 30s.

Pre-season predictions are a tough business, but one man has made a career of them.

Famed Red Sox statistician Bill James has some rather uninspiring predictions for the 2013 Red Sox rotation, as far as wins are concerned, at least:

Jon Lester 12-12
Clay Buchholz 12-11
Ryan Dempster 11-10
John Lackey 12-12
Felix Doubront 12-11
Total 59-56

As you can see, James envisions just three Sox pitchers breaking .500 this year and none with more than 12 wins. If the Sox are to win as many as 89 games this season, the bullpen will have to come up with a combined 30 victories. That seems far-fetched. If James is right, the Sox are in for another miserable summer.

While none of the above projections is exciting, if you're looking for optimism, James provides some of that too.

The stat guru projects that Lester, Doubront and Lackey will each pitch 200 innings and that Buchholz will reach 190. James also projects a 3.64 ERA for Buchholz, 3.70 for Doubront, 3.71 for Lester, 3.74 ERA Dempster, and 4.05 for Lackey.

If correct, all five starting pitchers would have ERAs lower than the league average.

When it comes to offense, James projections are much more optimistic:

Will Middlebrooks is projected at .277, .806 OPS, 29 HR, 99 RBI.

Dustin Pedroia has a bounce back season, .296/.367/.459, 17 HR, 45 2B.

Jacoby Ellsbury hits .294/.346/.436, 15 HR, 37 SB, 100 R.

David Ortiz projects at .283/.386/.533, 32 HR, 103 RBI

Ryan Lavarnway projects to have a solid rookie season: .261/.335/.435, 16 HR, 66 RBI (115 G)

Mike Napoli projects at .248/.350/.469, 29 HR, 75 RBI, 127 G.

Shane Victorino projects at .269/.338/.418, 14 HR, 29 2B, 7 3B, 29 SB, 85 R.

Jonny Gomes is projected with 16 HR (in 322 AB), .337/.441/.778.

Ryan Kalish projects at 10 HR, 21 SB, .320/.384/.704.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia is projected at 19 HR, .309/.454/.752.

Stephen Drew projects at 11 HR, .325/.411/.736.

That amounts to three 30-ish home run hitters, two 30-base stealers and four players with an OPS of .800 or better. Not bad.

For what it's worth, James has a long history of uncanny predictions. That's why the Red Sox employ him.

But, as the Red Sox know too well, a team's season can be derailed by injuries. The 2012 Red Sox used a franchise-record 56 players, required 42 disabled list transactions, and lost nearly 1,500 total player-games to injury.

The Red Sox had 24 players, 13 of them former All-Stars, go on the disabled list 34 times last season. Since 1987, when records were first kept, no team in baseball used the disabled list more.

That's why depth is so critical. The question is, are the Red Sox deep enough to contend as presently constituted? There's little financial flexibility left to improve the roster.

Peter Abraham reports that $105.275 million came off the Red Sox books by the end of the 2012 season. However, with all of their offseason acquisitions, the resigning of David Ortiz, contract raises for some players, and expected increases for arbitration-eligible players, the Sox have added back $98.66 million.

According to Abraham's calculations, the Sox payroll for 2013 will be just $6.615 million less than it was last season.

In light of all that money spent, the troubling thing is the lack of star power. It's reasonable to question how the Sox can once again approach last year's $176 million payroll without having added any true stars to their roster. The offseason spending also leaves little room to improve the team at the deadline, or in the event of a serious injury to a key player at any point this season.

If Napoli misses time due to his hip condition and is unable to earn all the incentives in his contract, it would give the Sox a few million extra dollars to play with by the trade deadline.

In order for the Red Sox to be competitive this season, all the stars and planets must align. Every one of their regulars will have to play to the top of his ability. That just doesn't seem likely.

The Sox face a litany of questions heading into the 2013 season. Here's a look at some of them:

• Will the Red Sox get the 2008-2010 version of Jon Lester, who was one of the game's best young lefties, or the 2012 Lester, who was a shell of his former self?

More than anything else, perhaps, the Red Sox fortunes may rest on the performance of Lester, who turns 29 on January 7. The lefty entered September 2011 with the highest winning percentage among qualified active pitchers (75-31, .708). However, he's gone 10-17 since then and has fallen to seventh on the list.

This means that Lester went from a career .708 winning percentage to a .639 winning percentage in just one calendar year. If he does not regain his winning ways this season, the Sox won't regain their winning ways either.

Over the last three seasons, Lester’s fastball velocity has dropped from 93.5 to 92.0. Is it mechanical, or is it physical? Somehow Lester and the Sox have to figure it out and get him right.

• Will Clay Buchholz look like the pitcher who went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA in 2010, or the pitcher who regressed over the last two years, culminating with a 11-8, 4.56 campaign in 2012? Through five big league seasons, Buchholz has never pitched as many as 190 innings. That's got to change this year.

Over the last three seasons, Buchholz’s hits per nine innings have gone from 7.4 to 8.3 to 8.9, while Lester’s have risen from 7.2 to 7.8 to 9.5. Those are troubling trends. New pitching coach Juan Nieves and manager John Farrell will have their work cut out for them.

• Will John Lackey look like the former Angels' ace who once won an ERA title, or the bust he's become in Boston?

• Can Ryan Dempster continually stand up to unfamiliar AL lineups at age 36? How will he fare over a full season against DHs instead of pitchers?

Dempster is 124-124 with a 4.33 ERA in his 15-year career. He has made at least 28 starts and won at least 10 games in each of the last five seasons. That makes him a solid No. 3 starter, and nothing more.

The Red Sox hope he can give them innings, and lots of them. Dempster has pitched at least 200 innings in seven seasons, including four of the last five.

• Will Felix Doubront continue to improve on all the promise he displayed in 2012, or will he regress and suffer a sophomore slump? Doubront made 29 starts last year and threw 161 innings, the most in his pro career. He finished the season 11-10 with a 4.86 ERA. However, he struck out 167 batters in 161 innings while allowing 162 hits, which is pretty impressive.

• Is David Ortiz fully recovered from his Achilles injury, or will it hamper him this year at age 37? Can he be the same powerful presence in the Red Sox lineup as in previous years, or is he finally starting to breakdown?

Recent history is not on his side. Last season was the first in 20 years that not one player aged 37 or older hit at least 20 home runs.

How important is Ortiz to the Red Sox? Consider this: Though he missed all but one of the final 72 games in 2012, Ortiz still ranked second on the Red Sox with 23 homers and tied for fourth with 60 RBI.

• Can Dustin Pedroia stay healthy for an entire season, or will his all-out style of play cost him time on the DL, as it has in two of the last three seasons? The Sox will need the former MVP to be at his best this year.

• Will Jacoby Ellsbury be more like the 2011 MVP runner up, or the star-crossed player who can't remain on the field consistently?

Last year, Ellsbury missed 79 games due to a partially dislocated shoulder. It marked the second season in the last three that Ellsbury missed extensive time due to a serious injury. Ellsbury played in just 18 games in 2010 after colliding with third baseman Adrian Beltre and fracturing his ribs.

• Can second-year man Will Middlebrooks show the same flashes of brilliance he did last year, or will AL pitchers make the necessary adjustments to get him out more often? Can he handle the grind of a full 162-game season?

• With the addition of David Ross, how many games per week will Jarrod Saltalamacchia play? Will he even be with the Sox when they open the season, or will he soon be traded? Salty is 27 and will become a free agent at the end of this season, which diminishes his trade value. Moreover, he batted an anemic .222 last season with a terrible .288 OBP. The big catcher struck out 139 times in just 448 plate appearances in 2012. That's just brutal.

On the other hand, Salty led the Red Sox with 25 home runs, the first catcher to do so since Carlton Fisk had 26 in 1977. Saltalamacchia ranked third among major league catchers in home runs and finished with the fourth-best slugging percentage (.454) among American League catchers (minimum 375 PA).

• Is there a place for Ryan Lavarnway on this team?

• Is Stephen Drew's fractured ankle fully healed? Will he once again be the offensive force he was with Arizona? Due, in part, to that nasty ankle injury, Drew hit just .223/.309/.348 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs in 79 games last season.

However, Drew ranks fourth among all Major League shortstops over the last five seasons with a .441 slugging percentage and fifth with a .770 OPS (min. 1,500 plate appearances).

• Is Shane Victorino still the All Star caliber player he was in 2009 and 2011, or an over-the-hill player with fading bat speed? Victorino hit just .229 against right-handed pitching last season, compared to .323 vs. lefties. From 2006 to 2009, Victorino batted .288; but over the last three seasons his average dropped to just .264. That downward trend is worrisome.

Victorino has a career line of .275/.341/.430/.770 and has stolen at least 30 bases in four of the last six years, including 39 last season. He is also considered an excellent fielder.

• Can Jonny Gomes make up for the loss of fan favorite Cody Ross? Ross batted .267/.326/.481 with 22 home runs, 81 RBI and an .807 OPS in 130 games last season. That's a lot of offense to replace.

Ross was tailor-made for Fenway Park, producing 39 extra-base hits at home in 2012. Only three American League players had more: Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and Robinson Cano.

In the 100 years of Fenway Park's history, only four players had more extra-base hits in their first season with the Red Sox: Ted Williams, Bill Mueller, Jimmie Foxx and Dick Stuart.

Yet, away from Fenway, Ross hit just .232 with a lowly .684 OPS. Perhaps that's why the Sox weren't inclined to enter into a long term deal with him.

Enter Gomes. Over the course of his career, Gomes has struggled against righties, posting a .223/.307/.425/.732 line. However, he has pounded lefties, posting a .284/.382/.512/.894 line. That seems to make Gomes an ideal platoon candidate with lefty Ryan Kalish.

According to BasseballAnalytics.org, of Gomes' 73 hits in 2012, just five were placed to the right side of the field, with all 18 of his home runs going to left field. Considering the league as a whole hit a combined 1.035 on balls hit to left field at Fenway last season (better than any other placement in the park), that seems to bode well for Gomes in Boston.

However, Gomes is inferior defensively to Ross and is more of a liability versus right-handed pitching.

• What is the condition of Mike Napoli's hip and can he play every day? Napoli has been on the DL five times over the past six seasons, missing a total of 123 games in that span. Napoli topped out at 140 games in 2010, making it the only season in which he's played in more than 115 games. That's worrisome.

Yet, Napoli never missed time due to a hip injury. But it now appears that he has a serious hip condition that may in fact be degenerative. That's why the Sox are so concerned.

With the Rangers last season, Napoli struggled with leg injuries and batted just .227. However, he still posted an .812 OPS and hit 24 homers. And in 2011, Napoli had a breakout year, batting .320/.414/.631/.1.046 with 30 homers and 75 RBI.

Over his seven-year career, Napoli is a .259 hitter with a .356 OBP, a .507 slugging percentage and an .863 OPS. For five straight seasons, he has hit at least 20 homers, peaking at 30 in 2011.

However, Napoli is a weak first baseman and is not strong defensive catcher either. Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a former catcher himself, didn't have confidence in Napoli behind the plate. Consequently, the Angels dealt him following the 2010 season.

The additions of Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara, plus the late-2012 emergence of Junichi Tazawa, should greatly improve the Red Sox bullpen this year. Red Sox closers were 35 of 57 (61%) in save opportunities last season. That's why the club acquired Hanrahan from Pittsburgh. The pen should now be an area of strength for the Sox.

More than any time in recent memory, the Red Sox enter the season with a huge number of questions, to which only time will provide answers. If all of the above players thrive this season, the Sox will surprise a lot of people. But if these players have mostly average seasons, or if the Sox are again stricken by injuries, this will likely be a .500 team, at best.

It appears the AL East will be even more competitive than in recent years, so the Red Sox will really have their work cut out for them. Not since 2000 has an AL East team won the division with fewer than 95 wins, or made the playoffs with fewer than 91.

That's the challenging history confronting the 2013 Red Sox. Yes, it's a tall order.

No one is picking this team to contend for a playoff spot. But perhaps the low expectations will serve them well. The only way this team will surprise anyone is if they outperform.

The Red Sox open the regular season on April 1st in New York, against the Yankees.